Candidness is a quality rarely displayed by Arsene Wenger when he discusses his transfer plans, but the Arsenal manager has been unequivocal in his desire for an ‘experienced’ central defender. Per Mertesacker is set to miss at least half of the season with a knee injury, with Wenger maligning the loss of a ‘heavyweight’ in Arsenal’s dressing room. The former German international has often been derided during in his time in England, but brings intangible qualities to Arsenal’s defending that aren’t always apparent until he is absent.
In Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel, the Gunners have two nimble and aggressive man-markers, who are yet to form a complementary partnership due to their similarity. Arsenal are a better unit with Koscielny and Mertesacker, with the latter sweeping up behind the former from where he can see the bigger picture and organise his troops.
Perhaps this is why Arsene Wenger is said to be casting any eye over Jonny Evans, who performs a similar role for West Bromwich Albion and Northern Ireland; that of the principal organiser in a deep-lying back four. Of course, one must allow for the possibility that Evans’ agent might be using Arsenal’s need for a defender to prise a new contract out of The Baggies’ notoriously hard-nosed chairman, Jeremy Peace.
The thought of signing a former Manchester United defender will awake many Arsenal fans in a Mikael Silvestre-induced cold sweat, but for a start, Evans is three years younger than Silvestre was when he made his ill-fated move to the Emirates.
The Ulsterman made 30 Premier League last season for West Brom, averaging 2.4 tackles, 3 interceptions, 3.4 clearances and 0.9 blocks per game while winning 56% of his duels. He was an important part of a West Brom team that conceded fewer goals than any team outside the top six, as well as an obdurate Northern Irish defence who qualified for their first major tournament in 30 years.
The fact that Evans did not quite make the grade at Old Trafford must be a concern, though he had some good displays in a United shirt. Evans was not quite afforded the chance to get a regular run of games alongside either Nemanja Vidic or Rio Ferdinand in order the learn what is an exacting position.
Sir Alex Ferguson was guilty of clinging onto the Vidic-Ferdinand partnership for too long, and when they both departed in the summer of 2014, this left Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones naked in the wind. It may have paid dividends to move one of Ferdinand or Vidic on earlier, to allow a younger player to come through and learn their trade. Smalling, to his credit, survived and has flourished at Old Trafford. Evans however, did not.
Whether an unlikely move to Arsenal could work depends on the defensive strategy Arsene Wenger decides to adopt. At the Hawthorns and with Northern Ireland, Evans typically plays for the team that has less possession, and therefore adopts a deeper starting position than an Arsenal centre back typically would.
Arsenal have better defenders than they are given credit for, but the team does not set up to protect them; full-backs are encouraged to go forward, with only one holding midfielder player in front of the two centre backs. An Arsenal defender is expected to cope in one on one situations; a Tony Pulis defender would only find himself one against one if something had gone badly wrong.
In simple terms, there are two ways to defend. One is press the opposition from the front in the hope of forcing them into errors. In order to maintain small distances between the midfield and back-line, centre backs are expected to squeeze up behind this press, sometimes into the opponent’s half. This can leave teams exposed to balls in behind them, as goals such as this one show.
Alternatively, the defending team can retreat into their own half in order to cut down the amount of grass in behind them, though this does result in ceding more possession to the opposing team. This is pretty much the strategy adopted by Pulis at West Brom in which Evans has flourished.
Arsenal have mixed-and-matched between these two styles, and it is often this confusion of styles which is to blame for why they have failed to win the league in over a decade. However, they have a general preference towards dropping off and defending space when Mertesacker has started. His lack of pace has left Arsene Wenger with little choice. Mertesacker is an exemplary defender when situated on the edge of his penalty area but something of a liability when stationed on the halfway line (a couple of fine examples can be found here and here). Arsenal’s away win at Manchester City in January 2015 was the ideal prototype for the ‘with Mertesacker starting’ defensive strategy.
If Arsenal adopt similar tactics, Evans could slot in quite competently. However, Arsenal can only afford to employ such tactics against teams who want to the ball. More often than not, especially at the Emirates, The Gunners are confronted with deep lying defences who have no intention of monopolising possession. Furthermore, Wenger is always inclined towards trying to dominate football matches, with the more proactive defensive strategy that requires.
With the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Iwobi, Mohammed Elneny and Granit Xhaka in and around the team, and Gabriel preferred to Mertesacker last spring, it appears Wenger is trying to mould Arsenal into more of a ‘pressing’ team.
Should this be the case, targets such as Shkodran Mustafi or Kalidou Koulibaly might prove more suitable. Should Arsenal adopt a circumspect, rope-a-dope defensive approach then Evans might fare better than many of the naysayers presume.
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